Creating a New Canon

One of the vital (and perhaps most obvious) ways that we can shift the way we perceive the world is through diversifying pop culture. By opening the doors of perception to a variety of viewpoints, we make it less likely that the subconscious stories we hold in our head will have only one author.

Pulitzer prize-winning novelist Junot Díaz penned a piece for The New Yorker on his experience at Cornell’s MFA creative writing program in the 1990s in which he bemoaned the lily-whiteness of the faculty, students and syllabi, and noted how this created a very narrow view of what makes for “good” writing:

From what I saw the plurality of students and faculty had been educated exclusively in the tradition of writers like William Gaddis, Francine Prose, or Alice Munro—and not at all in the traditions of Toni Morrison, Cherrie Moraga, Maxine Hong-Kingston, Arundhati Roy, Edwidge Danticat, Alice Walker, or Jamaica Kincaid. In my workshop the default subject position of reading and writing—of Literature with a capital L—was white, straight and male. This white straight male default was of course not biased in any way by its white straight maleness—no way! Race was the unfortunate condition of nonwhite people that had nothing to do with white people and as such was not a natural part of the Universal of Literature, and anyone that tried to introduce racial consciousness to the Great (White) Universal of Literature would be seen as politicizing the Pure Art and betraying the (White) Universal (no race) ideal of True Literature.

This is yet another way that white as the default experience plays out in our culture. by shaping the very idea of what are good (or worthy) stories. got their hands on two of Díaz’s syllabi for his undergrad fiction classes, and they’re pretty fascinating and filled with good reading suggestions, including Octavia E. Butler, Edwidge Danticat and NoViolent Bulawayo. Of particular interest is Díaz teaching a class about “world building,” the way that writers of sci-fi, fantasy and other genres create coherent universes for their imagined worlds. Science Fiction is one of the genres where reimagining race and representation should be easiest and most welcome, yet the futures imagined up for us are often unable to escape the racialized narratives of our present day.

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